Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis a difference-maker

Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis has always been a difference-maker.
On Thursday, June 25, he was among 46 coaches and administrators from Mississippi universities who met with government officials at the state capitol in an attempt to get the state flag changed.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 17, 2018, edition of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register newspaper.

As a visiting coach, Kermit Davis always had an appreciation for the atmosphere one feels when they enter The Pavilion on the Ole Miss campus.

The 9,500-seat arena, sporting a price tag of $96.5 million, has proved to be a dungeon of horrors for visiting teams since its opening in January 2016, including some games where Davis stalked the sidelines.

Now, Davis will be calling The Pavilion his home for the forseable future as he attempts to resurrect the Rebel basketball program.

He comes in with lofty laurels as Davis is an eight-time conference Coach of the Year and ranks 34th among Division I coaches with 403 wins in a career that’s included 15 years as the head coach at Middle Tennessee and head coaching jobs at Idaho (1997, 1989-90) and Texas A&M (1991). He ranks 11th nationally in winning percentage over the last three years and 13th over the last seven.

Davis told members of the Clarksdale Rotary Club during an Oct. 9, 2018, appearance that he wasn’t looking to make a move from Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he had built Middle Tennessee State University into a name on the college basketball scene and had grown a fan base numbering some 150 to 200 fans when he first arrived in 2003 to more than 10,000 who make up Blue Raider nation.

But when Ole Miss came calling last spring, the Leakesville, Ms., native couldn’t resist the opportunity to become the Rebels’ 22nd head coach.

“It was the right fit for me,” Davis said. “It’s been a great six months in Oxford.” 

Kermit Davis coaches during the Ole Miss men’s basketball game vs Vanderbilt on Feb. 29th, 2020, at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms.
Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

The son of longtime Mississippi State coach Kermit Davis Sr., the younger Davis played for the Bulldogs, graduating in 1982, and started his coaching career in Starkville, Ms., as a graduate assistant. 

And while he admits there will be a challenge in his first season in Oxford, Ms., Davis believes he has the facilities and program that will attract the nation’s top players. 

“You need for nothing” at Ole Miss, Davis said, pointing to the campus and athletic facilities, topped off by The Pavilion.

“It’s the nicest on-campus arena in college basketball,” said Davis, who was the guest of Rotarian and local attorney Ed Peacock, who has had Ole Miss season tickets since 1974.

“We’re going to create a product they really want to see play,” he said. “We’re trying to create that winning culture.”

Yet, it won’t be easy as Davis predicts the Southeastern Conference will be “the best it’s ever been” when you look at the depth and the recruits the conference’s schools have brought in. He believes the SEC could send nine or 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament this year.

“There’s been a total commitment to basketball,” Davis said of the SEC schools.

And that’s also true at Ole Miss where he pulled in the nation’s 35th-ranked recruiting class despite being on campus for just a few months. He anticipates three or four of the freshmen class seeing significant time this season.

“We’re going to try to create a national brand. And to do that, you’ve got to beat national teams on a national stage,” Davis said. “Can we do that in basketball?”

The Rebels open the season on Saturday, Nov. 10 when they host Western Michigan. There are dates against Butler, Baylor, Iowa State and Middle Tennessee on the schedule, as well as the usual SEC slate featuring powerhouses Kentucky and Florida.

(Editor’s Note: In his first season as coach at Ole Miss, Davis led one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the nation. The Rebels posted a 20-13 record to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. In the last 2019-20 season, Ole Miss finished with a 15-17 record, including a 6-12 mark in the SEC.)

The Oct. 6 stop was Davis’ first in Clarksdale, but he has fond memories of the area. Out of high school, he first attended Phillips Junior College in neighboring Helena, Ark., for two years. It was there where he met his wife, Betty. The couple have two daughters, Ally and Claire.

“It’s nice to be back in this area,” Davis said. “Northern Mississippi basketball fans are unbelievable. There are a lot of knowledgeable fans around here.”

And it’s a fan base he will attempt to energize and bring back to The Pavilion in droves.

For he wants to make it his home for now and the future.

Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis is shown during a Feb. 29, 2020, game vs. Vanderbilt at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms. Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

Author Greg Iles’ roots are in the Mississippi mud

Mississippi author Greg Iles has written numerous best-sellers and even had one of his novels made into a film.
Yet, Iles quickly admits he’s yet to write that “one great book.” And he is perfectly fine with that.

“Cemetery Road” latest for writer whose had 15 books appear on NY Times’ best-sellers list.

(This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019, issue of The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register newspaper.)

By Michael Banks

Greg Iles has had 15 books appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, including one that reached number one. The Mississippi-raised author has had one of his novels made into a film and his work’s been published in more than 35 countries.

Yet, he readily admits, he’s still to write that “one great book.”

And Iles is perfectly fine with that.

 “I’ve tried to walk the line between entertaining people and really saying some things that really help people. Maybe the day will come where I write that one. Maybe not. But as long as you can sleep at night, it’s good enough,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m alright where I’m at right now.”

And where Liles is at right now is on the cusp of another appearance on the best-sellers list as his newest novel — “Cemetery Road” – was released March 5, 2019. Liles was in Clarksdale, Ms., on Friday, March 8, 2019, for an appearance and book signing at the Cutrer Mansion as part of the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Book Talks lecture series.

Iles attributes his success to the ability to “mine your own experiences and touch people.”

And that’s something he’s been doing since his first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” was released in 1993.

Yet, the path to success has been filled with long hours spent away from family and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2011, Iles was seriously injured in a car wreck on Highway 61 near Natchez, MS. He sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured aorta. He was put into an induced coma for eight days, and lost his right leg below the knee.

 It was during his three-year recovery when he wrote the Penn Cage trilogy — “Natchez Burning,” “The Bone Tree” and “Mississippi Blood.” The series follows the life of a fictional Mississippi prosecutor turned author.

He said while everyone is on “pins and needles” wondering where “Cemetery Road” is going to debut on the New York Times best-seller list, he’s fine with his station in life.

“On one hand, do I care? Yes, I do, as it certainly affects my future career. On the other hand? No, man, nothing. None of that matters.

“What matters? Are you still vertical, are you healthy, are your kids OK? And nothing else, nothing else, matters,” he said. “You got to get a little bit old to figure that out. Sadly.”

Author Greg Iles. (Photograph by Michael Banks)

One of the hardest things in writing “Cemetery Road,” according to Iles, was having to write about a character who had a terrible relationship with his dad. That wasn’t the case with Iles and his father, Jerry, who was a well-respected physician for nearly 50 years in Natchez, where Iles grew up.

“My dad was Tom Cage. I didn’t have to make anything up,” he said of the character from his books who is Penn’s father and a revered physician in Natchez.

“Cemetery Road” has been described as an electrifying tale of friendship, betrayal and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

A review by the Washington Post said the book is “an ambitious stand-alone thriller that is both an absorbing crime story and an in-depth exploration of grief, betrayal and corruption. Iles’ latest calls to mind the late, great Southern novelist Pat Conroy. Like Conroy, Iles writes with passion, intensity and absolute commitment.”

Iles believes the second book he wrote, “Black Cross,” which was set in World War II, was the best book he’s written.

“I wrote that book in three frantic months… I’m really proud of that one,” said Iles, who was born in 1960 in Germany as his father ran the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic at the height of the Cold War.

The book, which is his only work to not reach the New York Times best- seller list, did provide the author some personal satisfaction.

“My father called me and said his partner from Washington, D.C., had called him and said, ‘There’s a bookstore in the United States where they sell you and they don’t sell John Grisham,’” Liles told the large group, which burst out in laughter.

It was at the museum book store at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“That was a really high bar for me to make, in terms of research and writing and things like that,” Liles said. “Those are those small moments you get that you never forget. So, that book is special to me.”

The two books he wrote from a female perspective – “Blood Memory” and “Dead Sleep” – are also among his favorites.

But with all his books, Liles said, “I just don’t write those books. I live those books, every one of them.”

The act of researching and writing a book is “an intense experience,” he said. But once he’s written and completed the book, he’s on to the next one.

“I’ll go as long as I can without writing a single word,” Iles said of his writing process. “For me, the writing is the easy part. It’s the drudgery, the slavery. It’s just something I could always do. It’s the story, the working out the emotion, the psychology and the facts and the research is something else.

“When I start, it’s just bursting to get out. I say, ‘It’s like a pregnant woman when her water breaks.’ This story’s coming,” he said to a roomful of laughs.

At that point, Iles races to his recliner and starts the process, working about 12 hours a day. That moves up to about 16 hours per day and, near the end, he’ll stay up 24 hours, 30 hours until he’s finished.

“I don’t sit there on page one and agonize. I’m going on instinct the whole time,” he said. “I’m living the story with characters. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I’ve found that I’m sitting in the chair and my face is covered with tears because I’m going through it.”

Yet, to have that success, Iles admits a price has to be paid.

“That writing process is not good for your health, not good for your family life. It’s putting work above all things and working 18 hours a day, month after month after month after month,” said Liles, who admits to not having a vacation in 10 years. “You get successful, but you pay a high price.”

Iles lives in Natchez with his wife and three children.

“You just blink and your whole life’s gone. That’s just the way it happens,” he said. “You figure out where you get to where I am now, none of this matters.”

As far as television and movies, Iles had one of his books, “24 Hours,” made into a movie, “Trapped,” which was released in 2002.

With his success, the author now has the luxury of handpicking his future television projects.

“I’m successful enough now, where I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting a TV show.’ At this point, I don’t want to have just a TV show. I want to have ‘the’ TV show… or at least I want it to be what it should be,” he said. “I’ll just sit tight, be cool.”

All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.

Blues-speak?

“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”

Best Feature Photo

This photo was recognized with a first-place award in the 2018 Better Newspaper Contest conducted by the Mississippi Press Association.

In the photo, 2-year-old Camden Aderholt, center, and 3-year-olds Harper Powell and Anna Margaret Marley were fascinated by the bubbles drifting in the air, thanks to the efforts of Anna Sims Wills, 12, at left, Thursday night at the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale. The children were more fascinated with the bubbles while their parents enjoyed the sounds of the Blackwater Trio during the annual fundraising event that featured more than 100 people enjoying the music and picnic on the lawn of the mansion.

The awards were handed out Saturday, June 22, 2019, at the MPA’s summer convention held in Biloxi, Ms. Judging was done by members of the Kansas Press Association and the comment on this photo was “Love it!”

Best little newspaper in Mississippi

A short time after beginning my time as publisher/editor of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register, I picked up a single second-place award given out by the Mississippi Press Association for work done by the newspaper in 2017.

At that time, in June 2018, I silently set a goal in my mind that we’d exceed that number – that lone second-place award – with our work in 2018.

Exceed it, we did.

On Saturday, during a gathering of the state’s journalists in Biloxi at the summer convention of the Mississippi Press Association, the Clarksdale Press Register was honored with 26 awards in the association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including a General Excellence, marking it as the top newspaper in its class.

The awards were a culmination of a nine-month period, from our arrival in mid-March to the end of the contest period in December, in which the newspaper staff and contributors took on the challenge of making it one of Mississippi’s best newspapers and one that the community would be glad to call its own.

There were longer hours, more work asked of everyone and a call to do things a different way.

In the end, those efforts were recognized by members of the Kansas Press Association, which judged the annual contest, as well as the community with an increase in our readership and circulation numbers.

According to judges, the Press Register had, in addition to the overall General Excellence award, the best Lifestyles section and Magazine/Periodical (Coahoma Living) in its category, consisting of other weekly newspapers across Mississippi. The paper also received second-place awards for its design and Editorial Page, while our Women in Business special section received a third-place honor.

Staff writer Josh Troy received five awards, including a first-place award for best magazine story with his feature on Roger Stolle, owner of the Cathead music store in Clarksdale.

My talented wife – and unpaid volunteer writer – Danette Banks received a third-place award in the Feature Story category with her profile on local musician John Mohead. And the two of us combined to win the entry for Best News/Feature Package with her story and my photos and layout of a profile on another Clarksdale musician, LaLa Craig.

I was lucky enough to beat out some talented journalists and receive 15 awards. Included in that number were four first-place awards: the before-mentioned News/Feature Package; best Business Story with a profile on Mary Williams and what prompted her to start an urgent-care medical facility in Clarksdale; top Commentary Column with my entry of three columns addressing such things as crime and apathy in Clarksdale; and first place in Feature Photo with the photo linked to this post that shows children enjoying a concert on the lawn of the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale.

I knew that we had done good work during our time in Clarksdale and Coahoma County, but was still surprised by the sheer number of honors thrown our way. Secretly, I was hoping we’d win six to seven awards and then reach middle figures the next year and continue to build on our success.

These awards and turnaround in a very short time only reinforce the effort and talents of the limited number of folks who were able to put out an award-winning product in the Mississippi Delta and show what can be accomplished with initiative, hard work, talent and a bit of sacrifice.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who played a part in The Press Register’s success.